Five trends in contemporary worship (Part I)

Recently Jeremy Begbie asked me what I saw happening in the church worship world. He was preparing material to present at a conference in London, titled Joined Up Worship, and wondered what sorts of developments and questions I had observed of late. While there is no way that I can claim semi-omniscient perspective--the terrain is simply too vast and too detailed to yield a reasonable survey in one glance--I felt that I had, in fact, begun to notice certain patterns over the past number of years.

Here is part one to my answers, focusing largely on the musical arts, and while they'll be new to some, they'll be old hat to others; it might also be more appropriate to call these on-going trends, since some of them originate in the 1960s and '70s. I certainly welcome your additions and emendations. I'll post part two in a couple of days.

Five (sort of) new developments: 

1. A significant interest in "ancient" liturgical resources. 

We are witnessing across denominational lines a significant interest in reclaiming historic worship practices. Whether they return fifty years (to pre-Vatican II practices), or a hundred (to fervent revivalist eras), or five hundred (to Reformation worship orders) or a thousand years back (the really back then era), worship leaders are hungry for "olden" food.

One question this trend raises: On what basis does a person decide who their primary conversation partners will be, and what grounds inform a person's decision to choose this part of the ancient liturgical resource and not that part?

2. A significant interest in locally produced music over against production company-generated music.

Pentecostals and Reformed are doing it in spades: the former out of a genetic proclivity to recognize the work of the Spirit in their local contexts, the latter out of a cultural proclivity for folk music, to the extent that it represents "the singable music of the people." Emergenty congregations are also occupied in this practice, as are non-denoms, multi-racial churches, college and seminary worship groups, places like the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and denominational headquarters engaged in the business of producing new hymnals.

Much the same can be said about all media of art.

One question this trend raises: How can the local contexts continue to remain vitally connected to regional, national and international contexts?

3. A significant interest in theologically intelligent music.

Whether it's a concern for a Creator God, engaged in creative or ecologically oriented work, or for a God of the Nations, engaged in bringing people from many tribes and tongues together, or for a sacramental God, bringing the church into participation in the life of God by way of the Lord's Supper and baptism, worship leaders are keen to write theologically hefty music.

Two questions this trend raises (ripping off, er, riffing off of Lester Ruth): If God is triune, what implications ought this fact imply for Christian worship? If Christ is fully God, fully human, what implications ought that to have for Christian worship?

4. A significant interest in cross-cultural resources for worship.

The Summer Institute of Linguistics, the International Council of Ethnodoxologists, Lausanne, CICW, the Institute for Worship Studies, Michael Hawn, and loads of people around the globe are working industriously to generate these sorts of resources.

One question this trend raises: How do you use these resources well in congregations that are largely (and perhaps through no fault of their own) mono-cultural?

5. A significant interest in the missional dimension of worship.

Folks continue to wrestle with the way in which worship should be intelligible or accessible to "outsiders." It's the longstanding issue of worship-as-evangelism vs. worship-as-discipleship, and obviously folks position themselves on a wide spectrum.

One question this trend raises: In what way should Christian worship be familiar to the "outsider," whoever he or she may be, and in what way should it be strange to the "outsider"? Put otherwise, how do we exhibit contextually intelligent hospitality in our worship practices, while also allowing the fundamentally strange quality of worship to remain, even as we are continually formed by a peculiar dialect (the gospel) into a peculiar people (the church), which is received as stench or fragrant aroma, as stumbling block or invitation, as foreign but alluring or foreign and off-putting, to the seeker and the pilgrim?

(Five questions for contemporary worship coming soon.)

Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco 
Spanish, born Crete, 1541–1614 
The Assumption of the Virgin 

Crucifix in the narthex of the Chicago Temple


unknown said…
re: question 4: `Do the work of an evangelist'
That sounds about right.
Greg said…
re: question 1. Coming from the non-denom world, the incorporation of older forms of worship have certainly been an ongoing conversation. It's tricky. Incorporating forms is relatively easy compared to the much longer work of developing the theological framework and function for such forms (man - that's some good alliteration). It's been my experience that that longer work is something non-denoms have been rarely willing to do. Sadly, those older worship forms will most likely be a fad.
Greg, I wonder if it might be helpful to distinguish viz #1 older forms of worship, older practices of worship, and older texts of worship. In this way we could include a lot more church communities under this heading

It might also be appropriate to distinguish between self-conscious appropriation of older practices and un-self-conscious appropriations.

Well done on the alliteration. :)
Unknown said…
Hi David! I think you are spot on here, and I wanted to engage a bit with you on this. Thought I'd chime in here on my own personal responses to your questions. I'm the music director at a small Presbyterian church in Seattle. My worship background and influences have been Southern Baptist (church choir, handbell choir, hymnals); contemporary evangelical (PowerPoints, praise choruses); charismatic (I can get down with jumping, clapping, shouting, kneeling, hand raising, and tongues); and, more recently, a combination of old hymns, new hymns, contemporary chorusy-type songs, my own original worship songs. I'm rediscovering liturgy, and can't get enough of reading prayers and meditations. Also, along with my pastor, exploring the Daily Office, more daily rituals of prayer, and incorporating opportunities for lament, confession, repentance and intercession into our liturgy.

Here are my brief answers to the questions you've raised:

1) I am relying on recommendations from friends, mentions by public figures/influencers I know/follow, and my own research into old hymnals and readings.

2) I am intentional about always (or almost always) incorporating both old and new in our corporate worship singing, including old hymns, newer songs, and songs written by me or my friends (which would not be used widely).

3) This post has actually gotten me thinking that I need/want to be more intentional about making sure we are focusing on the Trinity in worship. If I err on any one part of the Trinity, it's that we sing mostly about the Son. But this has me thinking, and as I go forward, I plant to do a better job of making sure we are singing to and about God in the fullness of the Trinity. Thanks for that.

4) I have not really used any of these resources, but I should, since I was at Lausanne in Cape Town and did appreciate how they incorporated cultural influences in the music. We are limited by human resources, too, i.e. instrumentalists and singers. We have occasionally drawn from our community and have had rap, hula, and ukulele in our worship services. But I want to be more intentional about it, despite lacking many musicians.

5) We try to make our services hospitable to outsiders by explaining as we go how things work. I.e., my pastor always explains the process for receiving communion, not assuming everyone comes knowing what to do. We direct people to stand and sit, and all of the words are printed in the bulletin for the songs. Beyond that, we mostly use songs that are in contemporary language, even hymns (making minor adjustments to "haths" and "thous.")

Thanks for this, David. I'm enriched by this today.

Christy, this is a fantastic response. Thanks so much for taking the time to share it!

Popular Posts